Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Innocent Victims"

Bluebook magazine was one of the longest running of the nearly ubiquitous fiction periodicals that were published in the fist half of the last century. Beginning in 1905, Bluebook lasted, with one four-year interruption, until 1975, and John D MacDonald published at least 12, possibly 13 stories there. "The Innocent Victims," printed in the November 1953 issue, remained unread and unknown by anyone who hadn't read it in that publication until 1999, when it was included in an anthology titled Pure Pulp, edited by Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini. Greenberg, whose name seems to appear on nearly every anthology of popular fiction printed in this country, also edited MacDonald's Other Time, Other Worlds and the two Good Old Stuff anthologies.

Running a brief 4,000 words, "The Innocent Victims" is nothing special; just a typically well-written, absorbing tale of crime, told with MacDonald's characteristic economy and narrative strength. Like "The Homesick Buick," which MacDonald wrote three years earlier, the plot hinges on a unique method of detection that ultimately brings down the bad guy, arrived at after all the standard criminal-catching methods have been exhausted. "Victims, " however, relies more on character, psychology and motivation, and is built around a main character rather than a dramatic event. The suspense of the story is created in waiting to see how a certain person reacts to life-changing information. The editors of Pure Pulp rate the story as "among [MacDonald's] most satisfying" and call it "undeservedly overlooked."

A forgotten carton of cigarettes brings Sergeant Dan Tate back to his police precinct office one night after he had already left for home and his family. A bruised, disheveled teenage girl enters the station. Seemingly catatonic, it's obvious to Tate that she's the victim of a rapist, one who has attacked several young women in a big, downtown city park over the past several months. After getting her to a hospital and informing her parents, he eventually gets her to talk and learns that she was able to scratch the face of her attacker, deeply enough to have tissue samples under her fingernails, and deeply enough to leave obvious marks that would take several weeks to heal. Unable to see the man, the girl remembers that he smelled "clean... like soap, and pine trees and talcum powder."

With the help of a friendly newspaper reporter, Tate manages to publicize the crime and asks for the public's assistance in reporting anyone with recent scratch marks on his face. Using the girl's recollection of the rapist's smell, he deduces the man is not a bum or criminal, but a middle-class citizen of the city, who must be wary of the marks she left on him. Yet, after a week of tracking down lead after lead, Tate is nowhere. Then, while picnicking with his family, he has a "eureka!" moment and rushes back to the station.
The story is too short to reveal any more without ruining it. A character is brought in who Tate must interact with, and it is that scene that contains the story's best, most wonderfully crafted writing. I'd love to quote some of it, but even that would reveal too much.

The brief few paragraphs where Tate visits and informs the girls parents are a model of how economy can speak volumes. His brief argument with the father reveals an entire world of lower-class inner-city life in the Fifties. A brief description of the younger siblings of the girl, up late watching television, contrasts nicely with the glimpse we are given of Tate's own family life. And the disintegration of inner-city life and the call of the seemingly-bucolic suburbs are beautifully painted in a few sentences between Tate and a colleague.

MacDonald always claimed that the best lesson he ever learned as a writer was economy, how to tell more with less, how not to describe but to show, and how two hard carriage returns between paragraphs could say more than a mountain of words. "The Innocent Victims" is a textbook example of that.

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